The WWI Forts of Verdun: Part II

To read part I of the WWI Forts of Verdun, click here.

On our trip to Northern France, we made Verdun and the famous trenched battlefields our first stop. This year is the centenarian of the almost year-long Verdun battles, and my father is an enthusiast to the bloody battle. After some exploration of the quaint, neighboring towns and villages, my father and I started on a 7.5 mile hike through Tavannes, Souville, Thiaumont, and Froideterre, ending in Fleury-devant-Douaumont.

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This was taken in 2007 by my sister. Dad standing in front of Fort Souville.

In this post, I will pick up where we left off. About mid-day, we left Fort Souville and headed toward the famous Ossuary of Douaumont. Nine years ago, the four of us as a family explored the depths of Fort Douaumont, so we did not go back underground. This fort is one of the only ones you can safely go inside. (You can also go inside Fort Vaux.) What I can distinctly remember from our first trip is the rebuilt and rusted bunk beds that are lined up in the obvious bunker. It is a hellish reminder of the conditions these soldiers had to endure during one of the worst battles in history.

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The sword hilt of the Ossuary in Douaumont, France.

Fort Douaumont’s history is monumental in the Verdun offensive. It was the largest fort in the area at 30,000 square meters and 400 meters long. There are two subterranean levels reinforced with a 12 meters thick sand and steel cover. But the massive and important defense post was one of the easiest for the Germans to capture.

The French had basically left their fort undefended because they believed the German 420mm guns would not penetrate the fort despite their ability to overtake the Belgian forts in 1914. Fort Douaumont had been partly disarmed and mostly undefended, so the Germans entered through the backdoor and easily took the fort. It took only 98 men to do the job. This was a huge disappointment for the French Army who were only at the beginning of the Battle of Verdun. It took eight months for the French to get their fort back during the First Offensive Battle of Verdun, which began the closure of the bloody battle.

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In the distance, you can see the Verdun Museum from the Ossuary, but these trees offer a new look to a land that previously resembled the moon and its barren craters.

If you are in the Verdun area, hiking and exploring these massive forts, I would highly suggest giving Douaumont and Vaux a full day. It is completely worth walking through the walls and not being rushed. These two spaces deserve the time given to them.

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The shell holes and trenches surrounding Fort Thiaumont.

Our afternoon hike began at Thiaumont, on the opposite side of the Ossuary, which is a massive monument to those who died on the Verdun battlefield. The headstones that are perfectly lined up in front of the gorgeous and massive building designed as a sword’s hilt. Inside the Ossuary are 130,000 unnamed French and German soldiers memorialized for their sacrifice. But the graves out front amount to 16,142 graves making it the largest French cemetery for WWI.

Once you explore the massive cemetery including the Muslim memorial on the east side and the Israeli memorial on the west side, the Thiaumont turret is worth seeing. When you approach this area, at first, it is easy to think the little hills and valleys are decorative landscaping. But in fact, you’re walking through trenches and shell holes. It’s hard to watch your footing, but thankfully, there are now paths that help you navigate through the rebar weeds and small ponds with cat tails growing wildly.

Fort Thiaumont was a minor fort that could only house 50 soldiers, but its significance is not to be diminished. It acted as a guard point on the south-east ridge forming the last line of defense before hitting the River Meuse and Verdun. On June 21, 1916, the small fort came under extremely heavy fire. As you walk around the fort today, you can see a shattered turret. This heavy piece of metal is easily over 12 inches thick, but the shell that landed squarely on the observation turret, destroyed it easily sending the other half a good 20 meters away. To imagine the kind of shelling this tiny fort took on to have such force destroy their equipment is impossible.

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Walking in the woods toward P.C. 119.

We followed the destroyed, cement forts deep into the woods toward PC 118, PC 119, and PC 120, making our way to Fort Froideterre. It was clear that the majority of tourists stop at Thiaumont because we didn’t see another soul for the remainder of our hike. The thick mud and wily branches did not make the hike easy, but as we made our way to each Command Post hidden deep in the woods.

These command posts were supposed to only be a shelter and control point for the surrounding forts, but because the war raged on for months on end, they did become a focal point after Thiaumont fell. The three command points were no more than about half a mile distance from each other, but each one had a unique look and feel. We thoroughly enjoyed walking into each one of the hidden fortresses. While it made for quite a trek, I highly recommend seeing these places with your own eyes.

Because we were losing daylight, and frankly, we got a bit lost, we gave up the ghost in looking for the massive Fort Froideterre and made our way back toward the Ossuary by way of the Four Chimneys. These four towers poking out of the terrain facing the massive downhill and thick forest acted as an underground shelter for soldiers during their rotation in fighting. This was also a make-shift hospital, so stretcher-bearers would bring the wounded back here for treatment.

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The Four Chimneys along the path to the Ossuary.

On June 23, 1916, the Germans reached the shelter and dropped grenades for four days. When it was looking like the Germans would take the small fort, the 75mm turret gun from Froideterre defended the Four Chimneys and fought the Germans away.

As you drive away from the Ossuary toward Verdun, you hit two more major places of interest: Fleury-devant-Douaumont and the newly opened and restored Museum of Verdun. First, I’ll just briefly mention the small destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. Like the Bezonvaux village I mentioned before, this small village is completely destroyed but retains its town status despite the zero population.

The area surrounding the small town is completely contaminated making settling and farming impossible. But like Bezonvaux, it is a village “that died for France” and has a lovely trail that takes you through what was. A small church stands in the middle marking a lovely memorial to the small town with a plaque that states:

In front of the Chapels erected in memory of the destroyed villages, you will remember that there were men, women, and children who lived there, who loved this Lorraine landscape, who ploughed its heavy, meager soil. There were men here who lived at peace and the mortal remains of their ancestors are now mingled with those of dead soldiers! All are now protected by the Ossuary where the soul of battlefield still quivers and where burns the eternal flame of devotion. — Gerard Canini

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The Memorial of Verdun Museum, recently restored and opened.

The Museum of Verdun or Verdun Memorial has been painstakingly restored and updated to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. The gorgeous and modern building is hard to miss on the small country road, and it is definitely worth a stop in. At two levels, the museum houses archival films, countless materials, and displays reenacting the conditions the soldiers were in. When we went, there were things still not 100% in place, so many of the placards saying what each item was, was missing. But seeing what we saw was certainly incredible and worth the stop.

If you are in need of lunch in the area of these famous forts, you may find yourself out of luck. I would highly recommend bringing a pack lunch and snacks. But there is one family restaurant right next door to the iconic Ossuary called L’Abri des Pelerins. They offer diner eating with good home cooking. While they don’t speak much English, their menu does have a translation as well as gluten-free options.

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Our visit in Verdun was unparalleled and definitely a trip in and of itself for any WWI buff or history enthusiast. I would highly recommend getting your hands dirty and finding the depths of the forts. It puts things in perspective as you look over the now flush and green terrain to imagine it completely bare and destroyed.

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The grounds surrounding Fort Thiaumont. Lush and green now, formerly barren and empty.

Two other points of interest in Verdun that we did not get to would be the Citadel in the city center and the Mort Hommes region north of the city. The Angel of Death memorial stands in Mort Hommes and the Citadel is an underground shelter built in the late 1800s that was heavily used during the Battle of Verdun.

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Memorial for Andre Thome, a French politician killed during the Verdun offensive, outside the Ossuary.

Stay tuned to the blog as we travel from the Lorraine Valley toward Reims and the luxurious Champagne region of Northern France.

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